Beyond the Carceral State

Book Review - Volume 95 - Issue 3

McLeod reviews Marie Gottschalk’s “Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics,” which ultimately concludes that contemporary carceral reform efforts are woefully inadequate. Though certain constituencies have been motivated to pursue reform by budget deficits, decarceration efforts compelled by costcutting pressures alone are unlikely to bring meaningful change. Bipartisan attempts to reduce sentences for minor drug offenses, Gottschalk argues, will also fail to transform U.S. carceral practices, because the vast majority of people incarcerated are not convicted of low-level drug crimes. As such, Gottschalk contends, the carceral state is well on its way to becoming our new normal. A significant part of the problem, according to Gottschalk, is the absence of any inspiring, long-term vision for reform against which near-term efforts and compromises may be assessed. In an attempt to imagine a way beyond our carceral state, taking Gottschalk’s important critical analysis as a starting point, this Essay explores potential openings in contemporary criminal law reform efforts. Disaggregating various ongoing reform projects, this Essay argues that one contemporary reform effort motivated primarily by cost-cutting threatens to disguise and further embed current penal practices in ways even more destructive than Gottschalk describes; yet other ongoing reform initiatives could enable a more substantial reckoning with our carceral state over the long term.

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